You enter a gallery and are confronted by the startling sight of a three-year-old boy apparently balancing a life-size polar bear on his nose. The polar bear is huggably fleecy and the little boy is winsomely dressed. What is your response? Do you – audibly or inwardly – make that universal cooing sound that is the standard response to the cute? Or do you contemplate the delicate balance between the natural world and human appetite – the fact that, possibly for the first time in history, the fate of polar bears rests on what three-year-olds will be doing 20 years from now? If it's the latter, then I congratulate you – because you have anticipated the gentle nudge provided by the gallery label. If it's the former, don't beat yourself up too much, because I suspect you've got a lot of company. And you may not have much choice in the matter anyway. Cuteness – of which there is an awful lot in Facing East, Manchester Art Gallery's exhibition of works from the Frank Cohen Collection – has a tendency to short-circuit the thinking part of the brain and drive straight at your hard-wired instincts. Takashi Murakami's manga-style statuette does it, with its oversized head and infantile features, as do the drawings of Yoshitomo Nara featuring a large-eyed little girl.
The zoologist Konrad Lorenz first suggested that there might be an evolutionary origin for our response to such features – arguing that the ability of infants to stir their parents' protective instincts had obvious survival advantages. Stephen Jay Gould followed up the idea in a famous essay about the cultural evolution of Mickey Mouse, charting his progression from the rodent-like creature of his first films to today's baby-headed icon. Both would have recognised, I think, what is going on in quite a lot of the work in Facing East. Cuteness is being employed because it presses a psychological button that we can't lock – even if we wanted to. And this isn't a retreat from the real world, but a commentary on it – since Japan has been the world capital of cuteness for several decades now. The Hello Kitty culture – childish and marshmallow-sweet – is sufficiently entrenched there to have generated sociological studies. Some people suggest that it is a psychological response to defeat in the Second World War (we may be weak, but just look how cherishable weakness can be), others that it represents a self-conscious holiday from rigid social norms and economic pressure (if I'm a baby, then for a while at least I don't have to behave like an adult).
As a subject, it's a great one. Something's obviously going on in a society which paints cuddly toys on the side of its passenger jets. But Facing East left me wondering whether cuteness can successfully be explored by artists rather than merely be exploited by them. The differing etymologies of "cute" in English and Japanese are telling in this respect. Our word derives from the Latin acuere, "to sharpen", which blunts to its current meaning (kittens in teacups) by way of a long period when it was used of the keen-witted, incisive and clever. The Japanese word kawaii, by contrast, evokes ideas of parental protectiveness and vulnerability – that biological, hard-wired surge that a certain proportion of eye-to-face, and certain degrees of fluffiness, will invariably provoke. What you expect from contemporary art, I would suggest, is cuteness in the first sense – a cutting edge that reshapes how you see the world. What you get from the cute works in Facing East, I fear, is cuteness in the second sense – a shape that is intended to sidestep thought in favour of feeling.
Time to go up a gear
I enjoyed the almost hourly broadcast of the old Tomorrow's World theme tune last weekend, which accompanied the BBC's reports on the death of Johnny Dankworth. But it wasn't nostalgia for the jazz, so much as the 1960s technological optimism that he managed to encapsulate in that composition. The future always sounded as if it would be bright, clean-edged and upwardly-inflected. I found myself nostalgic too for a time when the BBC had a mainstream technology programme, which was essentially devoted to the ways in which human ingenuity might make the world a better place. And it seems odd, bordering on perversity, that at a time when technological change is as rapid as it has ever been and when revolutionary changes in technology will be required to survive peak oil/global warming (delete according to your political prejudice) that the BBC has nothing on air to fill the hole that Tomorrow's World left behind. There is a programme called Click, which addresses some of these issues, but it is almost defiantly geeky and goes out on BBC News Channel. Rory Cellan-Jones also does good work as the Technology Correspondent, but has only limited access at a general audience. What's really needed is something that aims at Top Gear qualities – inventive, irreverent and driven by enthusiasm.
* Man Booker reading is beginning to bite now – though I've already discovered one quite unexpected pleasure in the process, which is the alteration a novel undergoes when you read it in a single sitting. You find yourself absorbed in the book in a way that is much more akin to the experience of watching a film or going to the theatre, and if the time-span of the novel itself is tightly contained that can have a powerful effect. The novel doesn't have to share mental space with all the other stuff you're doing in your life – it simply takes over for three or four hours. In my experience the effect isn't quite as strong if the time scheme is episodic or expansive – there are too many points at which it feels as if the book itself is suggesting that you take a break to absorb what you've just read. But it is – rather literally – a rush when the events flow unbroken. Looking at the shortlist for the Lost Booker recently, which aims to plug the 1970 gap caused by changes in how the prize was administered, I found myself mentally assessing the contenders on this basis. Naturally, I wouldn't dream of leaning on that jury's judgements in any way, but I strongly recommend that when they read Len Deighton's terrific novel Bomber – which follows the events of a single wartime raid over the Ruhr – they buckle up on page one and don't unclip the straps until it's all over. It's very good in parts... but I bet it's absolutely terrific as an unbroken whole.